My dog Leia is perfect in my not-so-humble opinion, but she has her funny quirks. For one thing, I discovered dearly that she just wasn’t interested in toys.
It’s the strangest thing; She’s active, attentive, curious, engaged, and very intelligent – all qualities that seem to make toys a great idea for her. But she just doesn’t play with them.
For example, if I try to fetch with her, she fetches the item. But instead of bringing it back, she carries it to her bed like a hoarding dragon.
Tractor? No thanks.
Catch? Maybe once, but I have better things to do – like a nap.
As any obsessive dog mom is used to, I always study articles on the best ways to keep my dog healthy and happy. I had come to terms with the fact that Leia didn’t seem interested in toys.
But the more I read about the importance of spiritual enrichment, the more I wanted to find something to stimulate her mind, especially when she was alone during the day while her canine dad and I were at work.
Why is fortification important?
Mental stimulation is key to achieving your dog’s best behavior and health. Enrichment activities that mimic your dog’s natural behavior, such as digging, licking, chewing, sniffing, etc. allow him to get any of these instinctive acts out of his system in a healthy, productive, and non-destructive way.
As with humans, stimulating the mind in dogs promotes cognitive health throughout their lifespan. In fact, the old phrase “can’t teach a dog new tricks” was refuted in the 1970s, showing that mental stimulation can be even more important to older dogs.
We have also seen in humans that trying new activities or hobbies is beneficial for the cognitive health of seniors.
After reading the importance of enrichment for dogs, especially our senior citizen, and after working more in the office again and leaving Leia alone, I was determined to find an enriching toy that she really likes.
Choosing the right toy
Leia is a treat – I’m lucky I got loads of kisses from her – so a lick mat seems to make sense for a toy that encourages her natural behavior.
Licking mats are very popular enrichment toys because of their simplicity and attraction to the dog’s natural licking instinct. While it’s an activity people usually reserve for ice cream, dog licking is versatile. Not only is it for the taste but the activity also relieves stress, anxiety, pain, and boredom. This makes a licking mat a natural mental stimulation tool for enrichment.
Although Leia loves peanut butter, she has a strange habit after eating: it licks her fur and makes her hair sticky. Since I would have to wash it out or scrub it every time which is not her favorite, we no longer give it to her. Since lick mats are designed to spread soft food over them, this has taken this category out of the running.
While I’m primarily a fan of Leia, I’m also a huge dog fanatic in general. I follow a lot of dog stars and animal shelters on social media. Seeing stimulating toys that other dogs liked really helped me try ideas with Leia. I saw many animals enjoying treat-puzzle toys, and with Leia’s penchant for treats, I thought this toy might pique their interest.
Believe it or not, searching Amazon helped a lot too. I just typed in “Puzzle Treat Toy” and found this highly rated bestseller option – the interactive hide-n-slide puzzle game from Nina Ottosson / Outward Hound. Conveniently, Amazon has organized the listing with multiple options for levels and designs.
It was a bit of a difficult choice as Leia is very smart and good at solving problems but doesn’t have much experience with toys due to a lack of interest. I chose a level 2 puzzle toy because level one looked too easy for them.
Even before I introduced the puzzle toy to Leia, I was a big fan. It is made of durable, easy-to-wash materials and is free from BPA, PVC and phthalates.
It also comes with various built-in difficulty options. You can fill the small hollows with small treats or croquettes. The buttons can slide over the indentations or the fin-shaped levers swing over them – two different methods of solving the puzzle.
Plus, the puzzle was versatile in size and easy to work with, not spring loaded – perfect for our little six pound senior.
Introducing Leia to her puzzle
As expected, when I presented the puzzle toy to Leia, she didn’t know what to do with it. I kept tapping on it and speaking to her in an excited voice, so she paid attention, but she still didn’t interact with it other than sniff it.
Unlike other toys, it at least smelled of food, which definitely intrigued her.
Whenever she showed interest in the toy, I always encouraged her with praise and pats. After a while she was still looking at me like she didn’t know what I was asking of her. So I pushed the pegs closed to show her the tidbits and how the pegs work before closing them again and tapping on them.
I am a big fan of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, her late parrot Alex, and the tremendous advances they have made in animal science / human-animal bonding. Her main method of teaching him was by modeling. I love the idea, and I’ve used it on both my late guinea pig Oreo and Leia before. So I thought about trying it – by putting my nose on the pins to move them around.
I’m a very proud mom that Leia found out about this pretty quickly! It only took about two sessions of the Tap / Exemplify process to start doing it herself!
She seemed very proud too, and wagged her tail angrily as she devoured the spoils of her efforts.
Play with a toy, step by step
I’m thrilled that Leia found her toy and seems to enjoy using it. Strangely enough, so far she only seems to use it when I stand next to her, watch and encourage her. I don’t show her how it works anymore, I just give verbal praise.
I suspect it could be because she is not used to getting food this way and that her previous experience with closed food was that it was forbidden, which did not prevent her from engaging in things that she did shouldn’t have a few stressful times.
Ideally, I want her to recognize this toy as “her”, her toy to play with, whenever it is outside, whenever she wants. Now she seems to be using it to please me as she only approaches him when invited to do so.
She solved the whole puzzle a couple of times while I was away, but I always have to invite her to play with it to start. If I don’t, it will be untouched.
It’s adorable, if a bit confusing, as I know she loves the treats and looks like she’s having fun using them. I suspect repetition and continued encouragement will show her that it is hers.
I am absolutely thrilled that we finally found a toy that our cute girl will care and enjoy. I look forward to making it even easier for her and then we’ll use the levers and see how she handles it.
Do you have any tips on how Leia can recognize this toy as hers and use it more independently? How do you get your dog excited about new toys? I’d love to hear your advice in the comments below!